Somehow it figures that The Year of Alabama Music should be kicked off by people from Conway, Arkansas. Hapless as we seem to be at, um, blowing our own horn, we should nevertheless be grateful for the kindness of strangers, especially those willing to come all the way from the land of razorbacks to throw us a party with ourselves as its theme.
The party is a concert Saturday night at the Alabama, bearing the curious title of Abalabip! (the exclamation point comes standard with the title) and presented by The Southern Magazine of Good Writing, the Oxford American.
(We are genuinely fond of the publication and have extolled its virtues on a regular basis since its inception in 1992, never once giving utterance to the thought that, since the magazine doesn’t publish out of Oxford anymore, perhaps it should have repositioned itself as the Conway American once it rebooted in 2004.)
The highlight of the Oxford American publishing calendar for many is the annual Music Issue, and this time around, Alabama becomes only the second state OA has honored with an MI, plus CD, devoted exclusively to its music, which is an eerie coincidence, given that 2011 has been designated The Year of Alabama Music.
As in many states of the late Confederacy, a wild variety of musical styles took root in our over-planted soil and bloomed abundantly, but we never quite got the harvest to market. Most of the pure musicians of Alabama stock had to take their talents elsewhere to achieve the recognition they richly deserved. For example, had Hiram Hank stayed drunk in Montgomery or had Bill Handy kept his day job in the Bessemer Iron Shop, country music and the blues would have gone in decidedly different directions than we know today.
When you visit repositories of heritage such as our local Jazz Hall of Fame or Tuscumbia’s Music Hall of Fame, one refrain from visitors you’ll hear over and over is, “ I didn’t know [insert name of internationally-known artist] was from here.” That’s probably because [insert name] didn’t hang around here waiting to be recognized. It’s not just the marquee fillers like Emmylou Harris or Lionel Richey, but consider Big Mama Thornton (she had the hit with “Hound Dog” before Elvis did) or Jimmie Rodgers (the Father of Country Music) or Hank Ballard (he only wrote the greatest dance craze hit of all time, “The Twist”), all straight from the Heart of Dixie.
Yes, there are plenty more, and that’s where the OA, or anyone else trying to capture the quicksilver essence of Alabama music, runs into an aesthetic dilemma: where do you draw the line?
The Oxford American, following the tenor of many previous Music Issues, has opted to forego the obvious and showcase some less renowned Alabama singers and players, which is wonderful grist for my personal mill, but I’m not sure if that’s the way to get Alabama music over to the rest of the world. Editor Marc Smirnoff acknowledges the problem in his opening remarks, wherein he names every other Alabama musician previously cited in OA Music Issues, and don’t get me wrong, I’m tickled by this year’s choices, which include Ralph “Soul” Jackson, Curley Money & His Ramblers, Mary Gresham and Hardrock Gunter. As Smirnoff observes, “There is greatness residing in lesser-known, or just downright forgotten, names.”
I am cheered to see big-circulation column-inches devoted to Jim Bob and The Leisure Suits and Reverend Fred Lane, cult heroes in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa respectively, but I am dismayed by the scarcity of Alabama writers OA called upon to evoke the creamy goodness of Alabama music. There are a disquieting number of New Yorker editors and Delaware residents telling our tales here. Okay, so I only counted one of each. But you know what I mean. Perhaps in subsequent Music Issues OA will be diligent as well in seeking out lesser-known or just downright forgotten music writers.
(Oh, and there’s a short story by Greil Marcus that’s almost as good as the rest of the issue put together, though it has nothing much to do with the Alabama theme. It’s like finding a decent prize inside a box of Cracker Jack that already had more peanuts than you were expecting.)
Mr. Smirnoff notes correctly that it’s fiendishly difficult to establish the parameters of Alabama music, which is why I’m in favor of wooing the unconverted with the hits, back to back. People who hear Hank Williams followed by Nat “King” Cole” followed by the Temptations followed by Sun Ra followed by Tammy Wynette are bound to wonder what must be going on in a state that produces such amazing musicians.
The Saturday night concert called Abalabip! will utilize this concept, but with an OA approach, namely, Ralph “Soul” Jackson followed by the Sex Clark Five followed by Secret Sisters, or perhaps it’ll be the other way around. In any event, it’ll be an evening of eclectic music, seamlessly linking R&B, old New Wave and new old close-harmony balladeering. With Mary Gresham offering bonus soul crooning and Arthur Doyle some stratospheric saxophone, one can only wonder who will cover the song from which the concert derives its name, a cool Forties finger-snapper from Nat King Cole’s brother Eddie and his group, The Three Peppers.
Don’t miss the big show Saturday night, but also try to support shows of all sizes going on around town. Every night of the week, Birmingham has extraordinarily gifted musicians in every category playing in some of the most interesting venues a city could wish for, but as history has demonstrated previously, if we don’t support our favorite players by attending their live performances or purchasing their recorded ones, there’s no incentive for them to linger here. That’d be a shame, because hereabouts, thanks to them, every year is the year of Alabama music.